Ancient Celtic History: Who were the Celts?

There are no final truths. The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right question.
—Claude Lèvi-Strauss.

 

Ancient Celtic History

Information on Ancient Celtic Celtic History is primarily derived by Roman and Greek accounts, archaeological finds, and mythology. The epic historical fantasy entitled, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first unpublished novel in a series that is set in Ancient Celtic Britain in 24 AD—a time when powerful Celtic tribes in continental Europe had been conquered by Julius Caesar and dynasties loyal to Rome had been established in Ancient Britain. The political unrest between British tribal rulers provides the backdrop for the odyssey of the heroine, Catrin—a spirit warrior destined to meet the great-grandson of Marc Antony and to become queen of her kingdom.

To understand the Celtic Mystique, one must understand the history of  a powerful Celtic people who dominated Europe for almost 500 years. The following series of posts will delve into Celtic history, culture, warrior society, and religious beliefs.

Hillside Coastal White Cliffs Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Britain

 

The Celtic Mystique

The Celtic Mystique conjures images of magic, warriors, castles, and animal spirits based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British Isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey.  The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth of a king with a predestined envoy. Unfortunately, the Celts have also been saddled with the image of being barbarians who were civilized by Rome on which the Western civilization was based.

Yet the Celts dominated Europe for over 500 years, and there is no doubt their presence had a profound impact on European culture.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch


Who were the Celts?

In 5th Century BC, the Greek writer Ephoros described the Celts as one of the four great barbarian peoples, together with the Scythians, the Persians, and the Libyans, who lived beyond the confines of the Classical  Mediterranean world. They were called Keltoi or Galatae by the Greeks and either Celtae or Galli by the Romans. Their homeland was known to lie north of the Alps.

Written and archaeological evidence suggests by 500 BC the Celts occupied lands stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the upper Danube.  It is unclear how the Celts viewed themselves outside their tribal communities, but they were a distinct racial group who had similar material culture, social structure, art, religious beliefs, and language. Beginning in 450 BC, these people moved across Europe and became the Celtic tribes in Britain. Both archaeological finds and later legends strongly suggest Ireland and Britain actively traded with Greece. Many European personal names are similarly derive from ancient Celtic worlds.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Limited Sources of Evidence

The Celts left few written records about their world except for funerary inscriptions. Knowledge of their world comes from a variety of indirect sources: accounts of Greek and Roman writers; the later vernacular literature of surviving Celtic societies in the post-Roman period; and artifacts from archaeological digs. One of the primary shortcomings of historical accounts was the bias Greeks and Romans held of Celts as wild and savage people. Vernacular sources were mostly written in the Middle Ages in the Christian environment and were solely concerned with myths and legends of Wales and Ireland.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Dying Celtic Gaul

Historical Chonology

The historical chronology of Celtic history can be roughly divided into two periods:

  • Halstatt period (750 – 450 BC), also known as the Age of the Princes
  • La Tène period (450 BC – AD 100)

Halstatt Period

The earliest distinctive Celtic culture appeared in 6th Century BC toward the end of the European Iron Age. The Halstatt Period, named after an excavation site in Austria, was noted for the large number of rich burials and hill-fort settlements of ‘princedoms’ scattered across an area near the headwaters of several major rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine, and the Saône. The period became known as the Age of Princes because of the elaborate and rich burial sites of local chieftains or local aristocracy which have been excavated.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

La Tène Period

At the beginning of the 5th Century BC, the Halstatt princedoms were replaced by wealthy warrior societies further north, which extended from northeastern France to Bohemia. The material culture and artistic style called La Tène—named after the excavation site in Switzerland where it was first identified—became synonymous with the Celts. The artifacts during the La Tène period (450 BC – 100 BC) indicated that not only was Central Europe populated with Celts, but the people in these regions were wealthy, had an aristocracy, and high standard of living. With these cultural conditions in place, the people evolved into an appreciation of art and developed a spiritual side to their nature.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

 

To be Continued

The next series of posts will delve deeper into the Celtic history, warrior culture, and spiritual beliefs.

References:

Steve Blamires, Magic of the Celtic Otherworld:  Printed 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.

Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.

Claude Lèvi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques (1990), 7.

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